End of Life Etiquette

I get it, no one really wants to think about dying or make preparations to do so. It’s scary to think about and a little bit overwhelming, but if you don’t do it, you are just making it that much harder for your next of kin to deal with. And at a time when they are already going to be grieving terribly and not really capable of making clear decisions. I’m not going to go far as to say that doing all of this is clearly within the bounds of etiquette, but foisting tasks you find unpleasant onto others is surely impolite so we’re going to go with it.

Obviously, this all doesn’t have to be done at once. When you are young, single, and have few assets, it is pretty simple that everything just goes to your parents. As you acquire things and spouses and children, you should add additional documentation about your wishes. As your children become adults or it becomes clear that you won’t be having children and need to appoint a next of kin, you need to make sure your kids/key person is aware of where everything is and how to access it.

First- make a will. Once you have acquired enough stuff to leave behind, you should decide who you want to have it if you do not want the state to decide. Take the time to appoint an executor, who will be in charge of making sure everything gets done as you wish. Update it as your life changes.

When you have minor children, you need to appoint a caretaker for them in the event of your premature demise. You should probably also discuss it with that person so they don’t get *surprise* kids.

Decide what you want to happen if you become ill and incapacitated. If you have strong feelings on say, pulling the plug vs not, or especially as you get to the REALLY old stage, things like DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, make sure you state them clearly. Appoint someone who knows and respects your wishes to act as Power of Attorney and Medical Power of Attorney  and outline those wishes in a living will. Become an organ donor, if you wish.

Get organized! Make sure you have some kind of list or file of all your:

  • Credit cards and bank accounts
  • Insurance policies (especially life insurance!)
  • All pensions/IRAs/other retirement funds
  • All important documents: wills, living wills, powers of attorney, birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, citizenship records, military records (Veterans can get some pretty nice stuff for their funeral), etc
  • Paperwork for major assets: your cars and house if you have them
  • Major debts- credit cards, mortgage, student loans so your executor can pay them off
  • Make copies of everything! If you die in a plane crash and all your credit cards go with you, how is your next of kin supposed to get the numbers?

If you have a lot of money and assets, talk to a financial planner about organizing a trust, or setting up special school accounts for grandkids and the like.

In the digital age, it’s also important that someone have access to all your social media accounts so they can close them or memorialize them. If you are part of an online community, wouldn’t it be nice if someone were able to tell them that you had died and not just stopped logging on? Of course, there is an app for that- If I Die sends out a message of your choosing if you die.

Plan what happens to your body and the kind of funeral you want to have. Do you want to donate your body to science? Become a crash test dummy? Do you wanted a traditional burial, cremation, natural burial? There are so many options these days! If you have strong feelings, you need to make them known. If you want a burial plot somewhere particular, you should purchase it in advance. Do you want special music played at the funeral? Special food served? Make sure someone knows!

With a little planning and foresight, a difficult time for your most cherished family and friends will be a little bit smoother and easier. And isn’t smoothing relationships part of what etiquette is all about?

Do You Have to Send Thank You Notes For Condolences?

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

 Firstly I want to say Uncommon-Courtesy is amazing, and I love it, and you’re both geniuses.

I have a question about thank you notes, specifically thank you notes after a funeral. My father passed away, and my sister and I were the primary mourners; we’re both in our early 20s and had really good intentions about sending notes to thank people for flowers, mass cards, and the donations made in our Dad’s name. I feel like our age gave us SOME leeway on response time, but it’s now been six months and though we have all the information and note cards and addresses it’s been difficult to imagine writing them until now.

I guess my question is, how bad is this? Is it too late to send a note for this kind of circumstance, or should we include an aside apologizing for our delay? I hate the idea that a bunch of people think we’re unforgivably rude, but I guess I’m also nervous about bringing up a pretty terrible occurrence after so much time has passed. What would Uncommon Courtesy do?



Official Etiquette:

The Emily Post Institute says thank you notes are required for condolence notes.

Our Take:

A caveat: it turns out we were wrong, as you can see from the Official Etiquette section, thank you notes are required for all gifts and flowers. However, from reading other etiquette sites, it looks like a lot of people don’t actually expect to receive them in the way the expect thank you notes for wedding/birthday/baby gifts, so we still stand behind saying that if it’s too much for you, you should skip it.

Victoria: We are geniuses!

Jaya: We are!!!

Victoria: So I’m curious what your first thought is.

Jaya: Okay. So I’m actually not that familiar with funeral thank you note etiquette. I’ve never had to go through this. But I’d think that people’d be really forgiving, since you’re grieving. And that maybe this should be someone else’s responsibility.

Victoria: Haha yeah. So I’m not 100% sure and will look it up later (and it will be fun to see if I’m wrong [ED: I was wrong!]), but I BELIEVE that you are not obligated to send thank you notes for condolence notes/gifts. It’s certainly nice, but yeah, the point is to make you feel better about your loss, not put an extra burden on you.

Jaya: Definitely. So I mean, fuck aaaaanyone who tries to make you feel bad about this. Also, I sort of agree with her that if enough time has passed that no one is actively grieving anymore, it might be worse as a reminder? I’m not sure, but I could see how that could happen.

Victoria: Yeah, totally. Although, if she’s already compiled notes and addresses and stuff, it certainly does no harm to send them.

Jaya: That’s true. If the notes are there, you might as well send them. But she and her sister have no reason to feel guilty.

What To Wear To That Funeral

Only wear outfits like these if you're going to a fashion designer's funeral

Only wear outfits like these if you’re going to a fashion designer’s funeral

It’s an unfortunate fact that, as we get older, we start attending more and more funerals and memorial services. It’s also unfortunate (or maybe fortunate) that, for all the talk we have about weddings and baby showers and bar mitzvahs, no one spends a lot of time talking about how to conduct yourself at one of these things. For instance, when Victoria and I discussed what to wear, I said the only guidance I was given was “wear black,” while she said her mom told her not to wear black to the one funeral she has attended. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We don’t seem to be the only ones who are confused. Over at Etiquette Hell, this woman writes that she was chastised for wearing a black, sleeveless dress and a hat with a mini-veil to a wedding, and the commenters seem to be completely divided over the issue of what she wore. So where does this leave us? Here are some tips on what to consider when picking out an outfit for a funeral.

1. Where is it? – If the funeral services are being held in a place of worship, you’re more likely to find a more conservative dress code. In the Etiquette Hell link, but the woman was told that her outfit was inappropriate for the grieving family’s “faith and culture,” though it’s unclear what those are. But keep in mind that if you’re in a place of worship, your shoulders and knees will most likely need to be covered. For men, a black suit will do you just fine. For women, if you can’t find a dark-colored dress with sleeves (or it’s too hot to wear one), invest in simple jacket or shawl.

2. Who is it for?– Victoria said that, traditionally, wearing all black connotes “strong mourning,” and is most appropriate for the immediate family of the deceased. This isn’t to say that if you have a black dress you can’t wear it, just that you don’t need to be stressing yourself out if all you have on hand is something in dark blue. It’s better to wear a muted colored dress or suit than to show up in leggings and a baggy sweater because those are the two black things you happen to own. Traditionally, veils are reserved for the spouse/parents/children of the deceased, so if you decide to wear a hat make sure it doesn’t include one. Of course, this depends on your culture and traditions, so use your best judgment. The problem with wearing something “showy” like a hat with a veil is that it draws attention to you and away from the deceased and their immediate family, especially when people don’t really wear hats anymore. Like a wedding, you should absolutely avoid wearing anything that draws particular attention to yourself (unless you are the immediate family.)

3. Think conservative– A sleeved, long-ish black dress is great. A black satin dress with an open back is not. Try to keep jewelry, super-bright colors, and overall shine to a minimum. Same thing with shoes–now is the perfect time for sensible flats or boots.

4. Ignore all of this if the deceased wants you to– Apparently some people get very specific in their wills about what you should and should not wear at their funerals. Some people want everyone in their favorite colors, or specifically ask for no black. Usually you’ll be notified of this if this is the case.

How To Talk About Death

kermit-mickeyDeath is not common in western society the way it used to be. Infant mortality is relatively low, we have penicillin, and people die in hospitals, not at home. For many, this means that death is a rare occasion in their lives, which is a relief. But the flip side is that familiarity with death means an understanding of how to talk about it or offer sincere condolences. I still clam up when a friend loses someone close to them, unsure of quite how to offer support at a time when most people probably don’t know what they need. But here are a few things to think about when offering condolences.

1. Should I offer condolences?

In most instances, yes, you should, whether you’re the griever’s best friend, boss, or doorman. And if the griever brings it up first, you always should, even if you don’t know them very well.

2. When should I offer condolences?

If the griever tells you, immediately. If you hear it through another party (for instance, if your friend’s husband lets you know her aunt just died, because she’s not in any mood to be calling people), use your discretion based on your relationship. If it’s your best friend then obviously say something soon, but if you’re not as close, maybe give it a day or two, when it would make sense that news had gotten out.

3. How do I offer condolences?

If you can’t do it in person, I actually think text or email is much, much better than a phone call in most instances. When one’s grieving, the last thing most people want to do is get on the phone and interact with someone else, for multiple reasons. They may be making funeral arrangements, and don’t want to take time out of planning to hop on the phone with every relative or friend. They may need time alone, and don’t want to have to talk to anyone. Also these phone calls can quickly turn into the griever comforting those calling, explaining “no really, I’m ok, don’t worry” when they just want to grieve in peace.

An email or text on the other hand lets them know you’re there, but requires no response or effort from the griever (note: do not expect replies for these).

4. What should I say?

If you met the deceased, it’s always lovely to include a word or fond memory about them. If not, focus on the griever. You may say “I know how much he/she meant to you,” but a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” always works. This is also a good time to offer any services with something like “if there’s anything you need, please let me know.” If you’re closer, you can offer something specific, like house-sitting if they need to travel.

“I’m sorry for your loss” doesn’t sound like much. Often times I think I’m being too generic or uncaring when I send that message to a friend, but then I remember just how comforted I was with the flood of messages just like that the last time someone close to me died.

Tell us, what have you found comforting when a close one has died? What did people do that frustrated you?